F&S Classics: Fly Fishing for Bass
In this week's selection from the archives, our legendary fishing editor explained how to catch lunkers on the fly
In the August issue of 1949, I wrote an article, “Bass Flies, Old and New.” Among the new patterns was a fly tied by Don Gapen of Nipigon, Ontario, called the Muddler Minnow. Although Don designed the fly for big Canadian brook trout, we had phenomenal success with it on smallmouth bass. Ultimately, of course, the Muddler proved to be an all-round pattern and has been adapted to so many kinds of fishing that the original is hardly recognized anymore. Nevertheless, Don did create something that big fish could snap their jaws around. I still count the Muddler as one of my favorite bass flies—under certain conditions-and especially where accurate casting is essential. The slim-bodied fly has little air resistance. It can be flicked between two stems of grass at forty paces when the hand is steady and the wind is low. Not all fly rod lures have this quality even though they may be real fish catchers.
I don’t know if you remember Fred Geist’s Powder Puff. It was the rage 30 years ago. The Powder Puff is made in the same fashion that deer hair, mice, and frogs are tied: the hair is packed tightly around the hook, then pushed along the shank as each new bunch is secured. Instead of trimming the hair short to make a mouse or frog form, the bristles are left long. As a result, the fly looks like a powder puff. Whether this fits the definition of a fly or not, the Powder Puff casts like one. You can lean into an underwear-ripping double haul, yet the fly will come to virtual halt midway in the final shoot. Catch fish—yes. Cast—no. If it lands where you aim it, you are lucky. To be consistently rewarding, a fly rod lure must have good castability.
Johnny Dieckman once told me that he won the National Professional Fishing Tournament at Hot Springs, Arkansas, simply because of his accuracy. He didn’t know Lake Ouachita from the Persian Gulf, and being our All-Around National Professional Casting Champion at the time, he was reluctant to compete on unfamiliar ground. The Hot Springs vendetta wasn’t shooting at hoops but at mean old bass along a thousand miles of shoreline. As the first day progressed, Johnny discovered that when he dropped his lure right next to a stump—not 2 or 3 feet away but practically peeling the bark—he earned a strike. He fished against 30 of the best plug artists in the South for three days and rolled up the winning score by pinpointing his shots.
Many years back while fishing with Pete Seeger on the St. Lawrence River near Ogdensburg, I was telling him about my great new discovery in working floating bugs. Of course, I hadn’t learned anything that bass casters didn’t already know a century ago—that when working brushy shorelines the smart operator will drop his lure over logs, limbs, rocks, and other free lunch counters along Bass Boulevard. If conditions are favorable, with plenty of stumps, pads, and bank grass, you can aim your casts so that the bug falls on one of these objects, then twitch it off. By checking your forward cast over the target, you let the line fall without tension, and the lure won’t spin or hit so hard that it gets stuck. After a little practice you’ll get the feel of it, putting just the right amount of check into the line to make the bug fall dead. A hungry bass will bang it right then. The presentation is lifelike. Of course, a weedless bug, or one tied on a keel hook is much less likely to get hung up.
Pete paddled me within easy distance of a rock ledge where a fat smallmouth was suspended in a shaft of sunlight over the boughs of a sunken tree. I announced that he was about to see something amazing. Sawing the air with 50 feet of taper, I measured the cast to jump my bug off the ledge. It didn’t check right, and the plastic popper hit the rock over the bass’s head. The lure exploded like a clay bird. The near-bare hook fell in the water and the smallmouth swam over to take a look. Pete didn’t say anything. I tied on a new bug. There wasn’t much doing until we passed a stump. I meant to cast next to the stump but overshot my mark and a bass inhaled that popper with the nylon over a limb. He took the bug and the leader tippet. The third popper stuck fast in the bark of a tree trunk that lay half submerged in the water, and I snapped it off with my back cast. Pete was a diplomat. He sucked wetly on his pipestem. “Maybe you could just tell me about it,” he said.
The keel hook has been a big boon to this type of fishing. A new design called the Miracle Bug, which is best described as a fattened version of the Muddler Minnow, can’t snag or break even if it’s cast against solid rock. It is not a popper but a quiet-swimming lure which looks like food of some kind wiggling on the surface. Compared to most bulky fly rod lures, the Miracle Bug has very little wind resistance.
The easiest bugs to cast are those tied on hook sizes from No. 2 to No. 6. Bugs larger than No. 2 are usually rather heavily dressed and create so much air resistance that a beginning caster will find them more trouble than they are worth. Try to select those patterns which have a minimum of bulk. A lure with long bucktail wings poking out at right angles might look good in the shop but it will be a brute to cast. And you don’t need extremely heavy-wire hooks; regular wire is perfectly adequate for holding the heaviest bass, and you have the advantage of high flotation. When you give the rod and line a gentle upward pull, a correctly made popping bug should produce a gerblub sound from scooping up water as it buries its hollow dished-out face under the surface. After awhile you’ll learn to make different sounds with the bug, ranging from a faint plop to a loud chug.
How to Work Bass Bugs
To get strikes from cagey smallmouths, I find it more effective to go easy on the bug action. Just a gentle pop or gurgle will do the trick. I think one reason why rubberlegged crickets will outfish poppers at times is that they don’t make any noise. Quiet swimming plus the leg action of the bug is all that’s needed. Of course, there are other kinds of noiseless bugs that drive smallmouths mad under the right conditions. The Moth Bug, for example, with its clipped deer-hair body and deer-hair wings is one of the oldest quiet swimmers in the business. In fact, it’s so ancient now that most anglers ignore it, but over the years a simple brown-and-white pattern has caught literally thousands of bass for me, especially in the evening hours. This is the time of day when natural moths are most active, so its appearance makes sense to a smallmouth.
Fishing a fly rod bug is simple. For one thing, you don’t have to cast long distances to catch bass. Under most conditions when fishing from a boat or even when wading, a 30foot range is quite adequate. Naturally, the angler who can reach out to 60 feet or more has an advantage in being able to cover difficult spots, but the emphasis should always be on short, accurate casts. Accuracy is fundamental to successful bass fishing. It may be a broad statement, but nine times out of ten, despite wind, water temperature, barometer, and all the other reasons we find as a convenient explanation for an empty stringer, we are not always fishing where the bass are hiding.
Bass forage over open areas of a lake or river periodically, but they also spend periods holed up under botanical nightmares such as lilly pads, weed mats, stumps, and cut banks. These are not all easy to work with a floating lure. Jigs are one answer when the fish are in deep water, especially brush-bottomed southern reservoirs. Weedless spoons and plastic worms are effective offerings in shallow water. However, no single bait is attractive all of the time, and despite wire, monofilament, and rubberband weed guards, the game is not without its troubles. Unconsciously, most of us shy away from really impossible looking places, and often this is exactly where those big bass await.
Floating the Buffalo River in Tennessee is a wonderful experience, and I imagine when the weather is favorable, the fishing can be great. We did a 12-mile leg of the river with Hi Brown of the State Game and Fish Commission two seasons ago in weather that would discourage an Eskimo. The wind wailed and a frigid rain beat a tattoo on our heads.
We didn’t catch many bass, but the few that braved the flood came from under streamside stumps and backwater lily pads. We had to hold the boat with an anchor in midstream and really work the trash piles carefully, slapping the bug into the bank and pulling it around branches and stumps. It was exasperating fishing. Unless the lure fell within an inch of the shoreline, there was no hope of getting a strike. And if we hung a cast, it meant maneuvering across a raging current to retrieve the bug. After over-casting a half dozen times—which was easy in that gusting wind—we tended to aim short. This would have been a perfect situation for the Miracle Bug—but it hadn’t been designed yet.
In most sections of our country, opening day of bass season comes immediately after the fish have finished spawning. This is a period of great activity, and heavy catches of bass are common for about three weeks. It’s no trick to catch hungry fish, and in this lush spell many novice bass fishermen will learn their trade. When bass bite anything and everything, naturally people get the idea that they’re easy to catch. But the very next trip can be a complete dud. As the weather gets warmer and food gets more abundant, the fish are going to settle back to normal. It has been postulated, and it is undoubtedly true, that bass have regular feeding “lanes” which they frequent. They use them more regularly perhaps in some waters than others, and when you hit these right, it can be phenomenal.
Hal Liddle and I once had a fantastic day of bugging on the Falcon River in Ontario. Hal is a distinguished surgeon from Salt Lake City who handles a fly rod with scalpellike precision. The action started about noon in a large open bay surrounded by granite cliffs. It didn’t make much difference where we cast. Every few minutes a largemouth rolled up and walloped our poppers. I don’t recall how many bass we caught, but there were plenty of 4-, 5-, and 6-pounders.
This was our first day on the river, and we figured we had found an unclaimed paradise. Starting early the next morning we pounded the same bay to a froth and never got a strike. Whatever caused the wild feeding spree didn’t trigger one again during the next two days of our visit. We had to go hunting for each bass by working the stumps, pads, and boulders. Our mutual scores went way down. We caught fish, including a few nice largemouths over 4 pounds, but every cast had to be gauged accurately, and it was a long time between strikes. Things got to the point that the only bug the fish would respond to was a pattern called the Queen Bee. On that first wild day it didn’t matter whether the bug was brown, pink, or chartreuse. But that’s what makes the game so fascinating.